Winter open water swimming can extend your outdoor season indefinitely
Winter is coming. Though you might be sweltering now, seasons will change and air and water temperatures will plummet. And as those currently cozy temps dip, many swimmers will be forced out of the oceans, lakes, and rivers and into indoor pools around the country.
But you don’t have to restrict yourself to indoor training as fall gives way to winter. For some swimmers, open water season can extend well into the coldest months—or even continue year-round.
Over the past decade or so, the sports of winter and ice swimming have been growing rapidly around the world. (See “Splashback” in the September-October 2020 issue of SWIMMER to learn more about the history of cold-water swimming.)
These sports feature near-freezing water temperatures in outdoor pools or open water venues. The most extreme winter and ice swimmers may cut a pool-shaped hole in the ice on a frozen-over pond to dip or race, and others stick to the salty ocean for a shock of cold water and some breathtaking fun.
If you’re interested in becoming a winter or ice swimmer, there’s a lot you need to know about how extremely cold water can impact your body and how to approach this venture in the safest way possible. To start, here are some basic best practices for extending your open water season into the late fall or early winter.
(Note: U.S. Masters Swimming doesn’t allow open water races to occur in water less than 57 degrees, unless heat-retaining swimwear is required and there’s a USMS-approved thermal plan in place. Ice and winter swimming can take place in bodies of water much colder than that. Discuss with your health care professional before attempting these types of swimming.)
- Buddy up. Find an experienced cold-water swimming partner or group to swim with. Although some of us pay lip service to the idea of “never swim alone,” when it comes to very cold water you should never, ever, ever swim alone. Got it? Don’t go it alone when the water is cold. Cold water and its potentially dangerous effects can creep up on you quickly. Therefore, it’s imperative that you have someone or a group nearby to assist in case of emergency. A spotter on shore in addition to in-water buddies is best. The shoreside person can keep watch over you and call for help if needed.
- Seek advice. There are lots of cold-water swimmers around the world who have plenty of experience navigating shiver-inducing water, and most of them are happy to offer advice and support for newbies dipping their toes in the water. Reach out to them and take their advice when it’s offered. They have earned that knowledge the hard way.
- Do your homework. When venturing into cold water, it’s best to have done some research beforehand so you’ll understand what to expect. Find out how cold water impacts the body and learn the signs of hypothermia—shivering, teeth chattering, disorientation, hand and finger stiffness, etc. If you begin experiencing any of those symptoms, exit the water immediately and, as quickly as possible, get dry and warm.
- Develop a plan. You should also take some time to think through the sequence of events. How long will you swim? (Always err on the side of a shorter rather than longer swim—quick plunges are a good way to get oriented around cold-water swimming.) Who will you swim with? How will you keep tabs on each other? Where will your warm, dry clothes be, and in which order should they be stacked to make getting warm and dry as expedient as possible? (Your hands might not work quite right when you’re cold, and shivering makes getting dressed quickly a real challenge.) Will you be warming up in a sauna or the car? You’ll want to be out of any wind and the elements as you rewarm. Avoid jumping directly into a warm shower or hot tub, as this can trigger a potentially dangerous afterdrop that could shock the heart.
- Bring warm things to drink. In addition to plenty of warm clothes, including a hat and gloves, woolly socks, sweatpants, sweatshirt, and a parka or blanket, be sure to bring some warm tea, coffee, or even just plain water so you can warm up from the inside.
- Pick a safe location. A rushing wintertime river is not a good place to wade into cold water swimming. Likewise, you should never wander out onto thin ice. Even if you intend to get into the water, it needs to be done in a carefully controlled way. Look for places where conditions are easy—flat, calm, shallow water with easy entry and exit points and immediate access to a safe place to rewarm.
- Swim down the season. As summer turns to fall, stick with regular swims in a safe location as frequently as possible to help you adjust to cooling water temperatures. Though your swims will necessarily get shorter with each passing day, swimming down the season in progressively colder water is the best way to teach your body to handle colder temperatures.
- Get consistent. You can learn to tolerate and acclimate to colder temperatures, but it takes time and you need to keep up with it regularly. Set a consistent schedule of swimming—a couple times a week, even if they’re just a few minutes long each—can help you build up cold tolerance and learn how handle very cold water.
- Be patient and joyful. For many winter and ice swimmers, frolicking in icy water triggers a powerful physiological response that can induce euphoria. In fact, researchers are now investigating whether cold-water dipping and swimming might be a potential treatment for depression and anxiety. To be sure, swimming outside in a northern climate in the middle of January can be an utterly joyful, exhilarating, and refreshing experience. But it can also be dangerous. Take your time, don’t push it, and never compare yourself or your cold-water tolerance to that of other swimmers. Everybody is different, and even from one day to the next, your response to cold water can vary depending on a range of factors including how much you’ve slept recently, whether you’re dehydrated, and so on. If a particular swim feels just too cold, give yourself some grace—skip it and try another time.
- Open Water